Why not cotton?

I try to be a year-round paddler. I live in Ohio where we [in normal years] get some pretty cold weather. Even when it gets downright chilly here, our moving waters [rivers, creeks, etc.] don’t normally freeze, so if you dress for the wind-chill and keep your boat right-side up, you can get out there most any day of the year. But I have two cold-weather questions for you fellow paddlers.

-Why not cotton?

Any of the books I read about paddling [and many other outdoor sports] have a big, bad taboo against cotton. This seems to go double for blue jeans. I’m not sure why this is. I generally wear jeans and cotton shirts. Does the no-cotton rule also apply to underwear? When it’s cold I add layers of tee-shirts and long-john underpants. If not cotton, what should I be wearing? And—why?

-What type of gloves?

I bet some of you kayak people can help me with this one since you use those double-bladed paddles. When you dip one blade into the water you are raising the other blade up, which [I assume] allows water to run down the paddle onto your hands. With my regular paddle, my hands don’t normally get wet and just about any gloves will do the job. In fact I can go bare handed a lot of the time. Recently though, I’ve been learning the art/skill of poling, so I am now grabbing onto parts of the pole which I just pulled out of the cold water. That’s not so bad, but then that cold water runs up my wrists and into my sleeves. Pretty soon my long sleeves are wet. I can dry my hands on a towel, but those sleeves collect water and remain wet. Maybe this is one of the reasons cotton is a no-no?


Speaking from experience

– Last Updated: Dec-25-06 1:33 AM EST –

The book and magazine advice is correct. Way back when I was 19 I got caught in jeans and t-shirt riding a bike in a heavy thunderstorm. I found out in the worst way that cotton presents several problems, at least one of them potentially dangerous:

1. It does not insulate worth a crap when it gets wet, which it does almost immediately. There's a reason good bath towels are made from cotton. That same sponge-like absorbency makes it a terrible choice for outdoor clothing in anything but guaranteed-dry conditions.

2. Not only does it get wet, but it gets HEAVY from all that absorbency. It also tends to stretch, deform, and sag after getting soaked. In the bike ride above, my jeans were falling down after the deluge.

3. It takes a long time to dry. There's a reason cotton clothes have a "Cotton" setting on clothes dryers, and it's often the hottest setting.

4. Cotton clothing does not stretch well compared with some synthetics. Oh, it will stretch but then it doesn't rebound to its original shape.

The slow drying works against you not only after a capsize or thunderstorm, but also simply from heavy sweating. If you've ever removed a backpack from a sweat-soaked cotton t-shirt and then put it back on, you'll know what I mean. With paddling, this would be the same as removing a PFD during a lunch break and putting it back on.

Cotton, especially high-quality cotton, feels good against the skin. But it's not a good choice for outdoor wear unless you are going to remain a short distance from a spare set of dry clothes, or unless you're in a dry environment and absolutely sure it won't rain or snow. I would take the risk of going for a short hike from home in cotton but not an all-day hike anywhere. For paddling, only on the hottest summer days with a spare set of clothes stashed in a dry bag, which I consider not worth the bother when I can just as easily wear synthetics that dry quickly if they get soaked.

I don't get water running or dripping onto my arms, just splash sometimes from wind and/or waves. (This seems to be an eternal vexation for my husband, who complains of drippage all the time.) But pogies would solve your problem.

I can always count on Pikabike to …
… take the words out of my mouth when it comes to a discussion of either cotton or wool (we both like wool!). Here are some additional comments.

With cotton, the slightest amount of dampness, either from perspiration, a little rain, or even just very humid foggy weather, will leave you very susceptible to being chilled way more than you need to put up with. With good synthetics or wool, a little dampness isn’t really noticeable. This sounds like a minor issue, but it’s not. Usually you find how serious this is at the end of an extended time outside, when you are tired, a little cold, and less able to fight off the chill than you were earlier in the day, and now the situation is worse because the temperature is dropping too. At best, the difference between cotton and synthetics or wool will be the difference between being unconfortably chilled and being perfectly comfortable. At worst, it might be the difference between nasty shivering (borderline hypothermia) and feeling like a short, brisk walk will get you feeling pretty warm again.

Ditch all that cotton (every bit of it) and the first time you find yourself in familiar situations where you’ve been out all day and would normally be chilled and wanting to get inside soon, and I guarantee you will feel the difference.

Finally, remember that all I’ve talked about here is basic comfort when nothing has gone wrong. If you get seriously wet, clothing made from good-quality non-cotton fabrics might be what saves your life.

Them converse is also true
A recent survival show mentioned that wet cotton removes heat from your body faster/better than being naked. This is great for hot weather! Of course it is deadly in cold weather.

You should be wearing cotton whenever the temps are over 90 unless you are going to wear some of the new high tech fabrics.

no cotton
your base layer should be something like campoline or another of the modern fabrics. They wick moisture away from the body and keep you dry, and dry very quickly if they do get wet, plus they insulate very well. Fleece also makes a good insulating layer.

I have two farmer johns, a thin one for the early fall, and a slightly thicker one as the temps begin to fall. When the real cold moves in, I switch to my drysuit, and wear the farmer john and insulating layers under that. A drysuit keeps you dry but NOT warm.

In the fall I would wear a campoline under layer, the farmer john, and then a fleece paddling top over the farmer john with a light waterproof paddling jacket for splash protection on the outside. Adjust the layers as the weather changes.

Gloves? Light paddling gloves, insulated gloves, then paddling pogies when it’s really cold so your fingers can warm each other.

Hope this helps.


Oh, Just Try This…

– Last Updated: Dec-25-06 8:02 AM EST –

Keep you car running at the put in. Wear your cotton that you paddle in and walk into water. Try to swim around. Come back out and see how you feel. Now, imagine what you would feel like miles away from the car...

Nothing gives a better appreciation than direct experience. Don't speculate. Find out.


PS. Most folks don't expect to capsize. But, schtuff happens. Most year-round paddlers up north have figured out to dress for "schtuff" just in case. Also, if you dress for schtuff, paddle dripping is not an annoyance.

Cotton Kills
Its a saying in the Adirondacks , probably in other circles as well. Here is a tragic story. I was camping in the Hi Peaks with a friend quite a few years back. We didn’t know it at the time but a fellow over the next pass was slowly dying from hypothermia. It was early spring unseaonal warm weather. This Australian fellow and mate had hiked in early morning on the hard crust snow field. As the temperature rose the snow became soft. Without snowshoes they became exhausted from postholing in the still deep snow. He became wet and exhausted ,hypothermia set in and he passed on. He was wearing jeans/cotton. His mate struggled to an outpost and survived. There are many more…Save yourself the aggravation and stay away from cotton in cold weather.

Repost data
Good comments from others. Lower the “thermal conductivity” the better.

Fabric - Thermal Conductivity

Polypropylene - 6.0

Wool - 6.4

Acetate (polyester) - 8.6

Viscose (rayon) -11

Cotton - 17

why not cotton?
'Cause you’ll get cold if you get wet.

It’s pretty much that simple.

Simple Test
Cotton retains moisture more so than “poly” fabrics thus if you dunk it makes it harder for you to get back into your boat. This can be very critical for the sake of your life.

Get a large plastic bowl, a set of scales, one cotton t-shirt, one “poly” test shirt. Place bowl on scales and individually soak the t-shirts in water then weigh them. See the difference in weight.

No cotton
"Cotton kills". It holds in the moisture against your skin, gets heavy, gets COLD, stays COLD. Hypothermia can result.

Don’t take a chance.

Warmer with bare skin
Just think of the times you got wet on a summmer day while wearing a cotton shirt and you actually felt warmer when you took the shirt off.

The same properties that make cotton so comfortable on a hot summer day can kill you in the winter. Actually it doesn’t even need to be winter. Hypothermia can set in even with temps in the 60’s under the right (or should I say wrong) conditions.

Evaporational cooling
One reason cotton actually cools you, even in relatively cold temperatures, is that it absorbs a lot of moisture and then evaporates it very fast. That evaporation doesn’t dry out the cotton very quickly – too much water got absorbed – but it does chill you down quite effectively.

For the science-minded, evaporation causes cooling because it takes energy to convert liquid to gas. That energy comes from your skin in the form of heat loss. Evaporational cooling is why getting wet cools you down in the air – as the water evaporates it cools the skin. With a layer of cotton, however, there’s a ton more water and it’s spread out over your body like the proverbial wet blanket, so the cooling is even more dramatic.

I always carry several polypropylene shirts in my spare clothes bag, and on beginner trips even in midsummer, have more than once stripped a sopping cotton shirt from a shivering capsizee and replaced it with poly, much to the victim’s delight. My pre-trip e-mail now says “no cotton clothing on the water!”


you’re in my neck of the woods
yes everyone here has said how bad it is to be in the water in cotton. it removes your heat, it is heavy, all that stuff. I have flipped over a few times in the Mighty Tusc. myself. I usually wear Dickey’s work pants and I will say even in summer I am happy they dry so quick. sure the water isn’t too deep, but it never gets too warm and you are almost always in the shade.

I wear a pair of fingerless NRS gloves, but I puss out when it gets a little chilly.

So where do you put in around here? I was thinking that this year I wanted to try poling, so maybe we can try sometime. Sometime when it is warm that is.


Spray some Scotchguard on your cotton clothes and they should be fine.

In fact, you can save a lot of money on a drysuit by just applying Scotchguard directly to the skin.

If you need additional insulation, you can roll in down feathers immediately after applying the Scotchguard, but make sure to apply a second coat of Scotchguard in order to waterproof the feathers.

This cheap, custom fit drysuit will last for one to two weeks if you limit your showering and avoid the use of soap.

very true
in the dessert we used to cool our water jugs by hanging them in wet cotton bags from the vehicles exterior mirrors: cooling by evaporation-wind speeds it even up.

And yes, you’re better of naked than dressed in wet cotton.

Everyone is right on!
My first, unplanned spill over in the winter, near the shoreline (lucky me), was 8 years ago as a newbie. I didn’t have on a dry or wet suit but was dressed in layers of synthetic fabrics, as I knew the “no cotton” rule due to having been a 25 year veteran, x-c skiier at that time.

During a fall color tour on a Michigan river this past October, air temp in the low to mid 40’s, I encountered a downed tree in the river with little area to manuever around and failed to make a hard right turn. This time I was wearing neoprene top, pants, and knee high boots as well as layered poly fabrics. I didn’t bother changing into dry clothes as the ones I had on lost most of the moisture, by the time I got my boat and belongings back on the water, and along with my body temp they kept me plenty warm. Not so with cotton!

Listen to the voices of experience you encounter on this site. Most likely those giving advice have learned their lessons through personal experience.

Paddle safe, all the way!

ROFLMAO! Scotchguard?!
Yeah baby! And thanks for the smile!

Nobody has mentioned this yet
Wet cotton will kill you faster in the cold than being naked. The wet cotton literally sucks the heat out of your body. You are better off naked than wearing wet cotton in severe cold conditions. That is why it is so important to get wet cotton off your body as fast as possible if you go in.

If you exert yourself, the cotton becomes damp. From then on it is no longer an insulator. The only reason you get by with cotton under a coat is the coat keeps the moisture in the cotton from evaporating and cooling your body.

The next time you are out shoveling snow in blue jeans. After they get wet an you come in, feel how cold your skin is. The coat on top has kept your core warm so you didn’t have a hypothermia problem, but if you were to be outside for hours and hours in that condition I think you would suffer some consequences.

Your body heat is wicked away
much faster when wet than when it is dry. Cotton absorbs water and holds on to it much better than polyester or nylon and will remove your body heat much faster when wet. Dunk a nylon shirt and a cotton shirt in water and see how much difference there is in how much water is held.